The Meaning and Concept of Tantra in Hinduism


by Jayaram V

Find out the meaning and concept of tantra, with a brief description of the main beliefs, practices and essential features of the tantric traditions in Hinduism

The word Tantra (तन्त्र), refers to the obscure techniques and practices of ancient India which developed over a longtime, probably from the early Vedic period (2000 BCE), before they were integrated into the esoteric traditions of Vedism and Buddhism around 500-600 CE. The word appears in many religious texts with different meanings and connotations such as the RigVeda, Atharvaveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, Panini's Ashtadhyayi, Arthashastra, Samkhya Karika, and several other works.


Tantra literally means "loom, weave, warp.” The word is derived from the root word tantu, meaning a filament, thread or a cord. It is a symbolic reference to the nadis, or the subtle energy channels, which are present in the body. Tantra refers to the system or the set of practices which aim to purify them and weave them into a unified and harmonious whole, so that the body becomes fit for the awakening of pure shaktis and self-realization. It aims to weave the fragmented parts of human consciousness and the disconnected parts of the human body into an integrated whole and transforms the practitioner into a complete and perfect being.

Tantra is also the means by which the pure consciousness of the self is threaded or woven into the mind and body, whereby the being transforms into a living and breathing Shiva or the eternal self who remains absorbed in the unified consciousness of the pure self in all mental states. It is from that one supreme self, which is symbolically described as the lone thread (tantu), all this emerges. In the end, one has to unwind oneself and become that one thread again, discarding all the forms, names, illusions and attachments and return to the original state

Just as sutra, which means “threading together,” and which refers to a distinct body of religious literature, tantra too has an identical meaning and refers to a distinct body of spiritual knowledge. Some sutra texts also deal with the subject of tantra only. However, while sutra refers to a distinct body of literature, tantra refers to both a system or practice and a body of knowledge.

Tantra also has several other meanings such as mastery, control, model, framework, essence, essential part, doctrine, teachings, rituals, practices, text, treatise, system, school of thought, and so on. It also means dependence, which is the characteristic feature of all life upon earth. We depend upon the mind and body, prana, intelligence, and several other things for our survival. The dependence restricts our freedom and our ability to realize our full potential. Again, it is through dependence (tantra) upon several methods and shaktis one attains self-dependence (svatantra). Hence, the ultimate aim of tantra is always svatantra (freedom or self-existence) only. Tantra may also mean harnessing the energies (tra) of the body (tan) through a system of practices.

While the mantra tradition of Hinduism and Buddhism heavily rely upon the use of mantras for ritual and spiritual purposes, the tantra traditions depend upon various methods including the use of mantras, mystic syllables, yantras (mystic diagrams), objects, symbols and materials in both contemplative and ritual practices. It is possible that tantra might have originally existed as an independent, renouncer tradition, with its roots in the ancient fertility rites, tribal traditions, spirit worship and magical rituals, before its principles and practices were selectively incorporated by other traditions.

In Buddhism tantra found its way into Vajrayana Buddhism as an offshoot of the ritualistic Mahayana (the great vehicle) tradition which was a major departure from the original teachings of the Buddha. In Hinduism it became incorporated into all the major sects namely Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. Today, tantra is accepted as a legitimate form of spiritual practice in all these traditions. In popular opinion it refers to a specific branch of spiritual knowledge and transformative practices, just as Yoga. While Yoga is mainstream, tantra is still shrouded in mystery. The knowledge of tantra is also not disseminated freely. Many of its secret practices have never been put into writing. Instead, they are transmitted orally by the teachers to their students

Tradition or religion?

Tantra is not an independent religion or tradition, although the English word tantrism is often used to describe it generally and rather inappropriately as a distinct, esoteric religion, which is misleading since there is no separate and independent system of tantra as such which is not a part of Hinduism or Buddhism or Jainism. It is also difficult to define tantra since there are numerous tantric traditions belonging to diverse religions and religious sects. Tantric literature is also very diverse.

Some present-day scholars and practitioners of tantra, especially those in the west, wrongly portray Tantra as an esoteric, magical and occult tradition which is meant to channel or enhance one’s sexual power and energy through specific techniques, postures and sacred chants. Tantra is not a mere tool of carnal enjoyment. That is a very restrictive and dangerous view. Tantra aims to reach the divine through the field of Nature, which in our case is the body or the beingness. Although enjoyment (bhoga) is used in certain esoteric rituals, their purpose is not to enjoy physical pleasues as such but to experience transcendental states.

There are many tantric lineages in Hinduism, each with a history of a thousand years or more, which enjoy popularity and large following such as Shaiva Siddhanta, Goraknath Shaivism, Kashmiri Shaivism and the ascetic traditions of Aghoris, Kapalikas, Pasupathas, Adi Shaivas and so on. The Buddhist tantra was originally derived from Hindu Tantra, but was suitably adapted to fit them into the core doctrines of Buddhism. The important Vajrayana traditions are Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Japanese Shingon Buddhism and Nepalese Newar Buddhism. Tantric Hindu and Buddhist traditions have also influenced other Eastern religious traditions such as Jainism, the Tibetan Bön tradition, Daoism and the Japanese Shintō tradition.

Several attempts have been made with partial success to trace the influence of Tantra in the development of India’s religions. For example, it is believed that tantra might have played a role in the emergence of certain practices such as the worship of symbols and images, the practice of domestic worship known as puja, the design and construction of temples, certain funeral rituals, the use of charms and amulets, human and animal sacrifices, kundalini yoga, magical healing techniques, use of medicines and potions, mind control and the very idea of bhakti or devotion. Tantra also influenced the development of Hindu and Buddhist art and architecture, symbolism, sculpture and iconography.

Essential nature and purpose

The essential purpose of tantra is to free the beings from the samsara (births and deaths) through the purification of the maya shaktis that are present in the mind and body and use them to achieve self-realization or transcendence. In that process, a bridge is being built between the male and female aspects of the human personality through purification and unification. It leads to inner harmony, peace and tranquility, and the experience of oneness with the natural state (sahaja vidya) of the self, which is pure, infinite, indivisible, indestructible and all-pervading.

However, public opinion of tantra is still reserved, and deep disdain and distrust for certain tantric communities and their unconventional and controversial methods continue even today. When Acharya Rajaneesh tried to uphold Tantra as a legitimate form of spiritual practice, he was scorned by many common people and his teachings met with heavy resistance both in India and abroad. Even today tantric practices are not widely accepted by the general public, except those which adhere to the traditional, righthand methods.

The Goddess Bhairavi Devi with Shiva © CC0 1.0

Tantra is often misunderstood as a secretive, occult practice which involves the use of sex, blackmagic, sorcery, witchcraft, necromancy, blood sacrifices, mind control, hypnotism, etc. While there are some extreme, secret cults which engage in such practices, tantra is primarily a spiritual tradition which aims to combine the best of both material and spiritual aspects of the human personality and achieve balance by invoking its hidden powers and potencies through specific techniques. The ultimate purpose is to experience one’s own divinity in every aspect of life and in all states of consciousness.

It is also a holistic approach which aims to weave the pure consciousness of the self into the mind and body and transform the practitioner into a pure being. Tantra acknowledges that the human body is the forcefield of numerous shaktis who keep the soul bound and deluded amidst the ever changing phenomena of Samsara. By withdrawing from the world and purifying oneself, one can transform and elevate the shaktis and seek their help to enter the transcendental pure state of oneness, which is otherwise difficult to attain.

The mantra tradition is not opposed to the tantra tradition. In truth they are harmoniously blended in tantra to achieve the best results. Just as in the Vedic rituals, fire occupies an important place in tantric rituals and contemplative practices. However, unlike any other, tantra is a complex tradition which is riskier and dangerous. Without discipline, purity and right knowledge, one may become exposed to the violence and chaos of one’s own demons or succumb to their insanity. Hence, to practice tantra in its unadulterated form, one needs the guidance of a guru or a competent master.

Main beliefs and practices

Tantra is both a system of knowledge and a complex tradition. It has many layers, some known and some unknown, and some revealed only to the most qualified. Kundalini yoga, nada yoga, hatha yoga, mantra, yantra, pranayama, mudras, mandalas, alchemy, Ayurveda, astrology, visualization practices, contemplation, guided meditation, prayers, invocations, esoteric rituals, are some of the salient features which are common to many tantric traditions. Their essential purpose is to awaken and harness the full potential of the shaktis that reside in the body and make them partners in the practice of liberation.

The complex nature of tantra demands that an initiate must possess right knowledge and know adequately the methods one has to practice for right results, and the risks that are involved. He has to acquire the knowledge of mantras, tantras, sacred syllables, mudras, chakras, nadis, techniques of yoga and contemplative practices through self-study, an adept teacher, observation or personal experience. A few important aspects of tantra practice are listed below.

1. Secrecy: From the beginning, tantra has been a secretive tradition which was taught only in person. Tradition demands that the knowledge and practice of tantra shall be kept secret by the initiates as a part of their initiation vows and shall not be revealed to anyone, unless it is permitted. Even today, the most esoteric aspects of tantra are unknown to the general public and never put in print.

2. Reality: Tantra acknowledges the dual nature of creation, represented by Purusha and Prakriti. They represent the male (consciousness) and female (materiality) aspects of creation respectively. However, at the same time, it accepts that the ultimate reality is nondual and one. The world is a playground of Shakti where she unleashes her deluding power (maya) to keep the beings bound.

3. Worship: In tantric worship one can discern three primary approaches, external worship (kaula), mixed worship (mishra) and internal worship (samaya). The kaula methods are further divided into righthand (vedachara) and left-hand (vamachara) practices. Initiates usually begin with the kaula and advance into samaya through the second. Left-hand methods have to be practiced in advanced stages only.

4. Visualization: In the contemplative practices of tantra, visualization of objects, deities and specific situations is commonly practiced along with ritual worship to tame the mind and gain control over one’s thoughts and impulses. Visualization practice along with pranayama and other methods help the practitioners to stay in control when they switch to left-hand practices which are riskier.

5. Sound: The Sanskrit alphabet is considered the force field (matrkachakra) of the goddess. Each letter-sound (shabda) in the alphabet is considered an aspect of Shakti. They play an important role in awakening the shaktis in the mind and body and making the body a sacred ground for the union of Shiva and Shakti. The universe is permeated with the vibratory power of the sound. Space is its medium and support.

6. Aims: The primary aims of tantra are bhoga (worldly enjoyment) and liberation (moksha). The initiates who practice kaula and mixed methods of worship pursue both. However, as they advance on the path, they lose interest in worldly enjoyment and focus their minds solely upon liberation. They mainly practice meditative (samaya) techniques to experience the bliss of pure consciousness.

7. The two paths: In tantra, both right-hand and left-hand methods have their own importance. In the left-hand methods, one follows the laws of Nature and the basic drives and urges of the body. In the right-hand methods, one practices self-restraint, asceticism, penances, celibacy and austerities. The general direction is one begins with the right-hand methods and advances into left-hand ones.

8. Mantra: A mantra is a sacred sound, syllable or letter form of a deity or shakti. In tantric traditions, mantras are used not only in worship for purification and invocation but also in meditation to illuminate the mind and awaken its corresponding shakti. Initiates begin their practice with mantra japa (chanting). The gurus initiate them with a seed mantra, which they have to use for chanting and meditation.

9. Image worship: Unlike in the ritual traditions of Hinduism, in Hindu tantra, there is not much emphasis upon anthropomorphic worship of the deities. However, it is not prohibited in the external worship of deities in the Kaula tradition. In the advanced stages, the focus is shifted from the external to internal and from forms to the formless to realize the omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent pure self (Isvara).

10. Yantra: The use of yantras in tantra is a natural corollary of the practice mantra. Each yantra is a visual representation of a goddess along with all her manifestations, powers and functions. In mantra japa, we worship her sound form. In yantra sadhana, we worship her mystic form symbolized as circles, triangles, letters, squares, etc. It radiates her energy, which helps the worshippers overcome obstacles on the path.

11. Chakra Puja: This is the third level of initiation in the Kaula tradition, which comes after the mantra and yantra initiations and after both have been perfectly mastered. It is primarily and characteristically a left-hand practice in which one worships the chakras in the body. The chakras in this context may mean either a center of energy and consciousness or a group of people who practice it together in a circle.

12. Mudras: The symbolic hand gestures which are used in the worship of deities and their yantras are known as mudras. They are meant to appease the deities and obtain their blessings. There are several types of mudras, whose true meaning and significance are known only to advanced practitioners. Some mudras are meant to be practiced in conjunction with specific mantras and methods of worship.

13. Bindu: In tantra, a bindu or dot has different contextual and connotational meanings. It can mean an energy center, a chakra associated with kundalini, the third eye or a specific shakti. In left-hand practices bindu means a drop of liquor or a drop of blood or male fluid. In alchemy it means a drop of mercury. In Kundalini yoga it represents the center of the eyebrows.

14. Sri Chakra: Also known as Sri Yantra, it is the most auspicious and supreme chakra or energy form of Sri Vidya, the Mother Goddess. It represents her geometrical form and used in tantric worship as well as meditation. According to the scriptures it represents both the body and the universe. It has nine interlocking triangles around a central bindu, which represent her male and female aspects.

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